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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 October 2005, 02:04 GMT 03:04 UK
Fear and rumours grip Birmingham
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Smashed: Asian centre attacked

In any crisis, there are facts, rumours and lies. The challenge facing Birmingham is to work out which is which in the wake of clashes between the city's black and Asian communities.

The story started when a pirate radio station DJ aired allegations that a black teenage girl had been gang raped by Asian men in a beauty shop near to the Lozells area.

Anger mounted and a public picket outside followed. By the weekend, with no victim having come forward, the mood was sufficiently heated for the police to try to start calming things down.

But by Saturday night, violence hit Lozells' streets as gangs took matters into their own hands. Young black men attacked Asian businesses; Asian youths attacked the black men; both gangs had a go at the police.

Who killed Isiah Young-Sam, a city council IT analyst returning home from the cinema, remains unclear as the police have not publicly confirmed the ethnicity of the mob behind the vicious stabbing.

After a second night of trouble saw more tension (and a fatal shooting that may or may not be related), the police swamped Lozells on Monday to stamp out the trouble.

Warren G, the DJ who aired the rape allegation, has kept quiet. The woman screening his calls told the BBC News website that he had only sought to do the right thing.

Ajaib Hussein, the owner of the beauty parlour at the centre of the allegation, has denied the claims and said his business is the victim of a plot by rivals.

Rumours abound

What's clear is that Lozells is rife with rumour and paranoia. There are stories of black gangs coming in from Nottingham to attack Asian businesses. Pakistani men are supposedly coming down from Bradford to prepare their response.

Campaign: But no sign yet of a victim

Then there are the rumours that this is really about a tawdry war for street influence between rival black gangs who have allegedly united to use minor community differences to escalate racial tension.

"There is going to have to be a lot of hard work to rebuild relations," said Maxie Hayles, Birmingham's veteran and outspoken racism campaigner.

"A conflict that has been growing for some time between the African Caribbean community and the Asian community has finally come to the surface.

"It was going to come out sooner or later. There are a lot of [black] people who think that the Asian people look down on African-Caribbean people. People don't want to talk about this because they think it plays into the hands of right-wing extremists. But if you don't talk about it, then this is what happens."

Birmingham is certainly a patchwork of communities. But the city's story is not of segregation and tension. If anything it has long been an example of natural integration.

It has twice the national average proportion of mixed-race children - kids born into relationships that stitch together this patchwork.

Even amid this week's events, that mixing is obvious. One of area's DJs who has defended the pirate stations is a Sikh man whose partner is a black woman. Down Lozells Road itself you see black and Asian people talking and shopping.

Changes and fear

But what is also clear is that change appears to have made some people nervous - and that has heightened tensions and differences in Lozells, an extremely deprived area.

Integration: Lozells is a diverse area

Some members of the long-established black communities appear to feel the most nervous, not least because some people in an area as diverse as this believe they are in competition with other communities for meagre resources.

On Lozells Road, you see the economic success of Asian communities. Shop after shop - grocers, chippies, sari sellers and newsagents - stand testament to a community's ability to pull together. While this is by no means an exclusively Muslim area, a new mosque is a symbol of success.

But very few businesses here are owned by black people, even though many of the customers are black. Asian shopkeepers say that if the allegations of rape remain unsubstantiated, it can surely be no coincidence that the location for the crime was an Asian-owned beauty parlour.

One Pakistani kebab shop owner said he had suffered a week of abuse by a gang who had kept away on Monday only because of the heavy police presence. He told the BBC the gang had returned night after night to threaten him, before smashing a window.

"We're good at what we do," he told the BBC. "I've got no problem with black people, everyone is my customer - and they [black youths] don't like it. If they continue to do it, then the Asian youth will come out on the streets again."

'Them and us'

Guffraz Farid, manager of a large grocery in Lozells, said that the violence had hit takings in one of his busiest weeks of the year - the run-up to the Muslim festival of Eid.
Shock: Local people have been taken aback by the violence

The local traders' association had agreed to shut their stores for an hour on Saturday as a mark of solidarity. Then, he said, a gang of young black men started threatening shop keepers and that, in turn, had prompted young Asian men to go out on to the streets.

"I'm just not going to risk it," he said. "I have 17 people working here and it's not worth staying open late if lives are at risk. We will be shutting early."

Maxie Hayles says a "them and us" of economic success and failure in Birmingham has been "swept under the carpet for too long".

"Until we face up to these issues, we will not be able to solve them. The reality is that the African Caribbean community don't have the money - they don't have the corner shops, the newsagents or even the jobs in these places."

This is a view that you hear a lot. One West Midlands race equality official, Derek Campbell, told the BBC that some black people were saying they had been "re-colonised" by successful Asian communities, an allusion to slavery and empire.

"They see money going into Asian communities because, let's face it, the Asian communities have been good at working together to get it," said Mr Campbell. "Are we going to blame the Asians because they have got their act together? I think not. There are challenges that the black communities need to face up to."

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23 Oct 05 |  West Midlands
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23 Oct 05 |  West Midlands
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23 Oct 05 |  West Midlands
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23 Oct 05 |  West Midlands
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23 Oct 05 |  In Pictures

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